Did the Arizona Cardinals Make a Mistake Committing to Carson Palmer?

Tyson LanglandNFC West Lead WriterOctober 15, 2013

Aug 9, 2013; Green Bay, WI, USA; Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer warms up before the game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The demise of Arizona Cardinals' quarterback Carson Palmer began long before he arrived in the desert. Ever since his final season as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2010, the 11-year signal-caller has been viewed as a flawed player who no longer has what it takes to lead a team deep into the playoffs. 

Sure, he put up some gaudy statistics during his tenure with the Oakland Raiders, yet that’s what happens when a player quarterbacks a team that has to play from behind on a weekly basis. At the end of his final season in the Bay Area, Palmer attempted 565 passes. That was the eighth-highest number in the league last year.

This, in turn, meant Palmer averaged a touchdown pass once every 25.6 throws. When one takes the time to compare that number to some of the league’s best quarterbacks, it pales in comparison. For example, Peyton Manning averaged a touchdown pass once every 15.7 throws in 2012, and Aaron Rodgers averaged one every 14.1 attempts.

Even Josh Freeman secured a touchdown pass once every 20.6 attempts. An adequate quarterback typically tosses a touchdown pass at Freeman’s rate from the 2012 season, which means the more throws it takes a player to get in the end zone, the worse off the respective team’s offense is.

Despite the average numbers and the declining skill set, it’s easy to see why head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim took a chance on Palmer. After Kurt Warner hung up his cleats, Arizona’s roster was filled with lackluster quarterback play. Kevin Kolb never worked out for obvious reasons, and the organization’s draft picks at the position fizzled out the same way Kolb did.

Yet through six games of inconsistent play in 2013, it’s worth exploring whether or not Palmer was worth the low-risk, high-reward signing. Even though the Cardinals only surrendered a seventh-round pick, there’s no question the 33-year-old quarterback has failed to live up to expectations heading into Week 7. 

Carson Palmer's PFF rating by the week, via Pro Football Focus
Carson Palmer's PFF rating by the week, via Pro Football Focus

According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Palmer’s performances have been average at best. He is currently the 20th-best quarterback in the NFL with a negative-0.3 rating, and he has two measly positively graded games to his name. Moreover, his touchdown to interception ratio has been abominable. 

On 221 pass attempts, Palmer has tossed 11 interceptions and seven touchdowns. That is an alarming rate based on the fact his career average for interceptions was 14.4 prior to the 2013 season. With 10 games left to play, he is on pace for 29.3 interceptions through 16 games.

At no point in his career has Palmer thrown more than 20 interceptions in a single season. What gives? Do his numbers directly reflect his poor play, or do his inefficiencies fall on the shoulders on his supporting cast? Statistics alone can’t tell us this story, so let’s go to the tape and examine what has gone wrong.

On Palmer’s first interception of the season, he was targeting All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. As you can see, he had a clean pocket and plenty of time to throw. However, it appeared as if he and Fitz were simply on two different pages. 

When Palmer let go off the pass, he was expecting Fitzgerald to cut off his route at the 30-yard line in front of cornerback Trumaine Johnson. Instead, Fitz cut off his post route at the 35-yard line, which meant the obvious miscommunication lead to an underthrown ball and an easy pick for Johnson. 

It was hard to tell who was at fault on the play. Did Fitzgerald run the wrong route, or did Palmer throw an errant ball? Unfortunately, we will never know.

Palmer’s second interception of the year proved to be just as ugly as his first. On this play, the Cardinals offense was in “11 personnel” and his target was tight end Jim Dray. While the play was breaking down, Dray found a soft spot in the zone to sit down in.

For whatever reason, Palmer expected Dray to keep his route going and flash in front of linebacker DeAndre Levy. Obviously, that ended up not being the case, and Levy intercepted the pass and took it to the house for six points.

For the second-straight play, Palmer and his pass-catching option were not on the same page. Furthermore, his mechanics were awful on the play. He not only threw the ball right to the defender, he threw off his back foot while falling away. 

Poor mechanics and miscommunication stopped this play dead in its tracks.

Against the New Orleans Saints in Week 3, Palmer threw his third pick of the season in the red zone. Arizona was trying to make it a 10-point ballgame with just over 12 minutes left to play, but that idea went out the window thanks in large part to another errant throw. 

As soon as Palmer started to feel the rush, he set his feet and got rid off the ball on a 10-yard out route. Tight end Rob Housler was wide open, yet the pass sailed right over his head and into the hands of rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro.

There was no sign of miscommunication this time—Palmer gift-wrapped the interception to Vaccaro.

Cornerback Darrelle Revis enjoys making life for quarterbacks unpleasant. Just ask Palmer. Revis intercepted his first pass as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers versus the Cardinals in Week 4. 

Like the New Orleans game, Palmer was looking to hook up with his receiver on an out route along the sideline. Fitzgerald ran a clean route and had inside position on Revis, but the throw ended up being to the outside of Fitz’s body right into the arms of the All-Pro corner.

Yes, the pocket was collapsing and Palmer did get hit, but that doesn’t excuse the erratic throw. Top-notch quarterbacks are asked to stand tall in the pocket and deliver the ball on time in spite of pressure in their face.

Undoubtedly, Palmer failed and notched his sixth interception thrown of the season.

Palmer’s first three-interception outing came against the Carolina Panthers in Week 5—on his third and final pick of the game, he was looking for Fitzgerald on a quick slant. The only problem was the throw was late into double coverage over the middle of the field. 

A lot of Arizona’s pass plays are timing and spot throws, but that’s no justification to throw to a receiver who is being swarmed by two defenders. Palmer failed to correctly read inside linebacker Luke Kuechly’s coverage on the play.

If he would have done so, Palmer could have moved off his initial read and thrown the ball elsewhere. Rather than doing so, he relied on his arm strength and made a bad decision. There’s not much else to say other than, why even attempt that pass?

He was booed on his way to the sidelines, and rightfully so.

Backed up against the shadow of his end zone, Palmer was doing his best to get the Cardinals' offense a first down. Regretfully, he tried to do too much, and it cost his team a possession when he threw into triple coverage. 

Force-feeding Fitzgerald is a nice thought, but a nice thought doesn’t always turn into desired results. On this particular play, Palmer locked in on Fitz even though wide receiver Andre Roberts was wide open at the 20-yard line.

When a quarterback throws the ball into heavy coverage, he’s begging for an interception. Lo and behold, Palmer didn’t have to beg too much. Cornerback Carlos Rogers came underneath Fitz's route and picked the ball off with ease. 

Bad decision making and forcing the issue doomed Palmer on his 11th interception of the season.

Whether it has been an errant throw, bad decision making skills or miscommunication, Palmer has made his own bed this season, and now he has to lie down in it.

With such uninspiring quarterback play from Palmer, the Cardinals are lucky to be 3-3. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has to be going nuts on the inside. Despite the poor play under center, he has his defense playing at an incredibly high level week in and week out. 

Which ultimately leads me to this question: Did the Cardinals make a mistake committing to Carson Palmer?

Shockingly, no they did not. Why? Because Palmer was an upgrade in comparison to what they had before, and the organization wasn't in a position to draft a top-tier signal-caller this past offseason.

As I mentioned before, it was a low-risk, high-reward signing. Additionally, his skill set was a perfect fit for Arians' offense. And it still can be in due time. Timing and mechanics are two things that can be fixed, but it will be up to Palmer and his dedication level to fix them.

Arians merely calls the plays. He can't execute them for the players, which is why Palmer needs to do everything in his power to get on the same page as his skill position players. Until he does that, Arizona can kiss their playoff hopes goodbye. 

The defense is playing well enough to win, but Palmer isn't. He has 10 games left to prove himself. If he doesn't correct his mistakes and show signs of life from here on out, you can bet Arians and Keim will be looking to find a new quarterback for the 2014 season.